Telephone triage nurses play a vital role in remote healthcare. They assess patients over the phone and direct them to the appropriate level of care, such as an emergency department, urgent care, or a physician’s office. They must be detail oriented, able to establish rapport over the phone, and have excellent professional judgment.
While work as a telephone triage nurse can be emotionally stressful, it is less physically demanding than bedside nursing. This guide explains how to become a telephone triage nurse, including education and licensing. Explore this growing career path today.
How Long to Become:
ADN or BSN
Ambulatory Care Nursing Certification
What Is a Telephone Triage Nurse?
Telephone triage nurses answer calls from patients and, where needed, direct them to the appropriate level of care. They also update medical records and provide patient education. They may care for patients who are starting to experience symptoms and are calling for the first time, or they may provide ongoing care for patients who are recovering at home.
With the rise of remote health monitoring, widespread access to phones with video capability, and the expanding telehealth infrastructure, this area of nursing is growing rapidly. Because many telephone triage nurses can work from home, it can offer nurses easier work-life balance.
Telephone triage nurses typically follow standardized protocols for assessing the best level of service, but they must also exercise professional judgment in ambiguous cases. While expanding access to camera phones and video makes it easier than when phone calls were typically just voice, a telephone triage nurse still has to make decisions without the same tools that a nurse would have during an in-person visit.
Steps to Becoming a Telephone Triage Nurse
The first step in how to become a telephone triage nurse is to earn a nursing license. Because telephone triage nurses exercise independent judgment without being able to assess a patient in person, most telephone triage nurses are expected to have experience or to work under very close supervision while they gain experience.
Most employers may require registered nurses (RNs) to be certified in basic life support or advanced cardiac life support. During an emergency, a telephone triage nurse may need to explain life support measures to somebody who is inexperienced, nervous, or both.
Earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited program.
Most nurses earn either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). The ADN takes about two years, while the BSN typically takes four years. While either degree will make you eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), a BSN is often better for career advancement.
If you already have a bachelor’s in a non-nursing field and completed prerequisites (which vary by program), you may be eligible for an accelerated BSN program. An accelerated program typically takes three years.
Pass the NCLEX exam to receive RN licensure.
Once you graduate, you are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN examination. This multihour multiple-choice examination is a requirement to apply for a nursing license from your state board of nursing.
Gain experience in triage nursing.
Many telephone triage nurses first gain triage experience in in-person settings like emergency departments or clinics, where patients must be assessed and directed to the correct level of care.
Telephone triage nurses must be comfortable with technology and with helping troubleshoot technology issues, especially for patients who are not adept with smartphones.
Consider becoming a certified ambulatory care nurse.
Currently, there is no specific telephone triage nursing certification, but the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers certification as an ambulatory care nurse.
Telephone Triage Nurse Education
The shortest educational pathway for becoming a telephone triage nurse is a two-year ADN degree. However, because of the level of professional judgment required, most employers require nursing experience, usually in triage, for telephone triage nurse positions.
Some require or strongly prefer certification as an ambulatory care nurse.
An ADN degree is the fastest route to becoming an RN and typically the cheapest, as most ADN programs are from community colleges. They generally have considerably lower tuition than four-year programs. However, employers may require or prefer a BSN for telephone triage positions.
High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum 2.0 GPA for some programs
Practical nursing skills, communication, updating medical records, legal and ethical aspects of nursing
Time to Complete
Typically two years
Practical nursing, working as part of a healthcare team, using medical equipment and technology
A BSN degree program includes the same curriculum as the ADN program, but in more depth and adding topics such as nursing theory, nurse leadership, and conducting and interpreting nursing research.
A BSN is the minimum degree requirement for graduate programs, such as nurse practitioner programs. RNs with an ADN degree may be eligible for an RN-to-BSN program, which typically takes about one year rather than two.
High school diploma or GED certificate; typically 3.0 or higher GPA
Practical nursing skills, communication, updating medical records, legal and ethical aspects of nursing, nurse leadership, nursing research, evidence-based practices
Time to Complete
Practical nursing, working as part of a healthcare team, using medical equipment and technology, research and statistics, nursing leadership
Telephone Triage Nurse Licensure and Certification
Some people ask how to become a telephone triage nurse without a nursing license. This is not possible, as a current RN license is required. Depending on the employer, you may need to apply for a multistate license or for additional individual state licenses if they are not part of the Nursing Licensure Compact. To maintain your license, most states require additional professional development hours.
Some employers require ANCC certification in ambulatory care; others may prefer certified candidates. This certification requires two years of full-time work as an RN, at least 2,000 hours as an ambulatory care nurse, and 30 hours of continuing education in ambulatory care within the last three years.
Working as a Telephone Triage Nurse
Most employers require experience in triage or in positions that require triage, such as emergency department or ambulatory care nursing, for telephone triage positions. Many also prefer a BSN to an ADN. While some telephone triage nurses work on-site at a healthcare facility, many work from home. For some nurses, working from home is a significant culture change.
Sitting all day can be physically stressful, though in a very different way from in-person care. Telephone triage nursing also brings heavy responsibility because you may need to make judgments without being able to communicate as clearly, assess symptoms, or run tests the way you could if you were conducting an in-person triage.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report salaries specifically for telephone triage nurses, but does report a median salary of $77,600 as of May 2021 for all nurses at all levels of experience.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Telephone Triage Nurse
How many years does it take to become a telephone triage nurse?
A nursing degree takes at least two years. Most employers require or strongly prefer experience as a triage or ambulatory care nurse. Certification as an ambulatory care nurse, often a preferred qualification, requires at least two years of full-time RN experience.
Is triage nursing stressful?
Triage nursing typically does not require commuting and is less physically demanding than most bedside nursing positions. However, working from home may be stressful for some nurses because of the lack of in-person support from team members. Triage nurses also may have to exercise independent judgment without all the facts at hand.
How many levels of telephone triage are there?
There are four levels of telephone triage in most settings. These telephone triage levels are to call 911 for a medical emergency; go to an urgent care facility or otherwise get same-day treatment; get medical care within three days; or take care of the condition at home.
What is the difference between a telephone triage nurse and an ER triage nurse?
A triage nurse assesses patients and assigns them to the appropriate level of care, whether in the emergency room (ER), by phone, or in some other setting. In the ER, triage nurses may provide direct care if needed, but their primary role is assessing patients and ensuring the most critical patients receive care first.
Telephone triage nurses may recommend that patients go to the ER, schedule an appointment with a provider, or they may provide patient education.
Page last reviewed March 4, 2023